Volume 9 , Number 10 , Winter 1988
Harry Brundidge, long-time St. Louis journalist and commentator on the early 20th century Ozarks, promoted Progressive goals in Missouri. In 1925 he and Ozark County school superintendent, Samuel Megee, described and dramatized the plight of education in south central Missouri.
Gainesville, Mo., Dec. 17. Nature was in no gentle mood when she created Ozark county which lies along the Arkansas border, 300 miles southwest ofSt. Louis. The nearest railroad is 40 miles away and there are persons in the county who have never seen a train. Contact with the "outside" is had largely through the one telephone in Johnny Harlins bank, through the mail, trucked from West Plains and the occasional drummer who comes to town. The district schools were organized to save the children from illiteracy. Today, with the coming of good roads, the ox cart has given way to the flivver truck and the telephone line has replaced the pony express, but the district schools remain unchanged and the methods used in the days of the ox cart still prevail.
Education has failed to keep pace with the progress of civilization not because the people of Ozark county do not want good schools, but because the district school system of the ox cart days has been retained by the state legislature and because those legislators have failed to finance counties that are too poor to maintain good schools. But the appalling conditions that exist in this county will continue to exist for another fifty years unless the lawmakers effect legislation that will relegate the district school system to its place alongside the ox cart, and which will make possible the financing of schools in the districts where poverty is the rule, not the exception.
Picture these conditions in this day of progress and achievement.
Children, up at the song of the first bird, doing chores on the farms then away to school, walking two, three or four miles through brush and timber, following trails through mountain wilderness, walking on muddy roads, crossing swift, deep streams on shaky foot logs, climbing fences, wading creeks, and finally arriving, wet and cold, to make fires in the ancient stoves in the cabins called schools, cutting and carrying wood and bringing drinking water from ancient springs. The school houses in many instances are fifty years old, glass gone from the windows, roof and side walls full of holes, desks and chairs rough hewn from wet oak, no libraries, no maps, no globes, inexperienced teachers, younger in years than many of the pupils; blackboards consisting of daubs of paint on the rough oak walls; one room, one teacher, for all eight grades. Picture these conditions and then think of the city schools.
There are in Ozark county, 1,102 boys and girls who are not attending school. Compulsory education is not enforced. Megee did his best to get a truant officer, and to institute prosecutions against parents who refused to send their children to school, but the county court refused to employ the officer. "We dont believe the compulsory education law is a good law," the county judges said.
There are 90 school districts in Ozark county, eighty-five of which maintain one-room, one teacher schools. Four districts have a term of less than four months each year. Twenty have from four to six months, forty-five have less than eight months, twenty have eight months and one has nine months. The average length of the school term is 129 days; the average in St. Louis is 200 days. In all Ozark county there is not one school that can be classified as a second class standard rural school.
The ninety schools employ ninety-eight Schools
teachers and the average salary per month is $66.54. Megee the superintendent is paid $1,050 annually. One teacher is paid $38 per month.
Thirty of the ninety teachers have no equipment not even a dictionary. Forty-five are without a map or a globe. Thirty have no toilets. Forty-five do not have a wash basin or a towel. Twenty have no desks. In eighteen of the schools the pupils must carry drinking water from a fourth to a half mile. Eighty percent of the schools have blackboards made by putting carriage paint on the rough inner walls. Only five of the schools boast a flag.
Superintendent Megee took the writer and a staff photographer on a 100-mile trip to show at first hand a cross section of the educational system of Ozark county. We visited the Valley Star, Council Grove, Evening Shade, Fighting Flat, Shiloh, and other school houses. The equipment consisted of wornout stoves, some broken, tumble down seats which had been rough-hewn from water oak and which were carved with the initials of several generations. There were no libraries, and but one globe, an ancient affair suspended from the ceiling by a string, and one map,issued by a Missouribusiness college as an advertisement.
At the Evening Shade school house a sign on the door, scratched with chalk, read: "Closed Till Next Summer." The folks had all contributed to a much needed building fund, but they had to use part of it to pay the teacher. We found eight children huddled about the stove at the Shioh school house. One of the pupils using a stick kept the fire from falling out of a hole in the side of the stove. Miss Mae Sanders, the teacher, wore a heavy winter coat. "Look what we have now." she said with pride, and displayed a new dictionary. "We finally got one."
The school building is an old affair. It leans to the south as though tired of resisting the attacks of the north wind. Timbers propped against the side keep it from falling. A hump in the center of the floor would indicate that the floor had been laid over a huge rock or a tree stump. There is no toilet so the boys and girls alike must go to the brush.
Fighting Flat school house, stands in the shadow of old Bald Jess, which towers high above other knobs and ridges. It, too, was closed, the money raised by the district having been "taught out." The building also was of box car construction with no equipment. The Enumeration in this district listed thirty-one children of school age. Ten enrolled, eight attended classes.
A quarter of a mile down the road was a one-room log cabin. It was the home of Charley Gladden, the father of seven boys, three of whom are of school age. The boys have not attended classes since the opening week of school. Megee and the writer went over to Gladdens cabin and called out the salutation of the hills, "Howdy!" Gladden came out. Atfirsthe said he had kept the children from school because he had planned to move. Then he said he kept them out to pick cotton. Finally he said: "Ill tell you the truth. Thars been a confusion at the school house. Theys been a pickin on my young uns, and when thars a confusion thar aint ary use in sendin."
"I have shed tears for Ozark county," Megee said. "Our educational system is rotten to the core and must be abolished. We must have a new system. The state must control rural education, and must finance it. Until the state steps in and takes a hand, Ozark county, and the others throughout the state, will continue as they are today and children will grow up in the hills unable to read and write. Missouris rate of illiteracy being thereby continued as an appalling percentage."
Today, an unfunded Missouri educational system graduates functional illiterates in a different generation than that of superintendent Megees. Suburban St. Louis County schools still maintain considerable relative distance in material aids from most Ozarks schools, but are our schools able to maintain quality environments for the modern world? Who exactly needs "the education"? The legislature? the teachers? the parents? or the judicial system that prohibits effective discipline in order to create proper learning environments?
Condensed and edited by Lynn Morrow from "Condition of Schools in Ozark County" in the St.
Louis Star (rpt. Current Wave, 22 January 1925).
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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